How to talk to kids about disability inclusion

By Godfrey Nanyenya

Parents of this and future generations hold the key for engineering an inclusive society where everyone belongs. It’s up to them to teach the next generations to embrace disability as diversity. 

Although the disability rights movement has made immense progress over the years, we still have a long way to go. We must ensure that our kids understand the experiences of disabled people so as to create a more accessible world. 

I am a disability and inclusion specialist, and do community outreach in Kampala’s slum communities. I engage families raising children with disabilities in physiotherapy and inclusive home schooling. In addition, I encourage parents to talk openly to their children about disability and the most common question I’m asked is: “What’s the best way to approach these conversations?”

We must normalise disability

I think the most important principle that parents should bear in mind is that disability needs to be normalised.

People have different ways of living and moving through the world. When deaf people are using sign language, it’s not a lesser form of communication. If someone is spinning or rocking by a fountain, it’s not weird or freakish – it’s simply another way of expressing joy.

Parents can point out that a friend uses a cane to walk or that a cousin has a hearing aid. Make it clear that disability is a normal part of the human experience by talking about it in a matter-of-fact way. Disability is just another part of our diverse world, not something frightening or sad.

Be mindful of your language

Don’t be afraid to use the words “disability” and “disabled”. Dancing around these words can instill the idea that disability is something to be wary or scared of.

Parents should work through their own discomfort with the concept of disability and focus on talking about it in a way that doesn’t use a lot of ‘cutesy’ descriptors and euphemisms. The more straightforward we are in our language, the easier it is to have conversations with our children.

Keep things value-neutral

One thing we should say a lot when talking to kids is: “Disability isn’t a good thing or a bad thing – it’s just a thing. It’s value neutral. Don’t treat disability as something negative to fear, pity or feel awkward about. Statements such as “Oh that’s so sad that they don’t have an arm” or “You’re so lucky you’re not like that” are harmful.

There’s a tendency to say, for example: “Look at that disabled person, you should really admire them. They’re so brave. They’ve overcome so much.” That may sound like a compliment, but it’s actually objectifying disabled people. It creates the idea that disabled people only deserve respect for ‘overcoming’ their disability and that disability is something bad that needs to be risen above.

Don’t shame children for their questions

It’s not uncommon for children to ask their parents about disabled people they see in public. They may say something like: “What’s wrong with that lady’s arm?” or “Why is that man walking funny?” This curiosity is totally natural.

It’s so important that children aren’t shamed for asking these types of questions. When I’m out in public, I’ll sometimes hear children ask their parents:  “What’s wrong with her leg, why is she using a wheel chair?” as they point at the person with a disability. So often, parents will ignore the question or tell the children to be quiet.

It’s okay for your children to ask these questions! I believe that the more honest and open the dialogue that we can have about disabilities, the less those types of questions will be taboo.

Shushing your child or telling them they’re being rude sends the message that disability is shameful. Instead of scolding, make it clear that their questions are welcome and give a straightforward answer, such as: “That person is using a wheelchair to move around ”

Saying “I don’t know” is okay

Children often ask why someone they observe has a disability. In this situation, it’s totally fine to say that you don’t know.

“Sometimes I overhear parents answering with their own assumptions about disability, and they’re usually inaccurate. If it’s not feasible to talk to the disabled person in question, parents can simply say they don’t know and explore some possible explanations, such as: “Maybe they were born with one arm, or perhaps they had an accident. Lots of people have one arm or no arms for different reasons, and that’s part of who they are.”

Point out similarities

Your conversations about disabled people don’t have to centre 100% around differences. You can also point out similarities, whether it’s a stranger in a wheelchair who’s picking out the same brand of ice-cream your child likes or a friend from school who’s in the same club.

You could say: “Your friend has ADHD but also loves playing chess like you do,  Those similarities matter to make the point that whatever differences may be presenting are a part of who that person is but not the entire picture.

Make this a continuous conversation.

The conversation around disabilities should be ongoing. Start when your children very young; talk about how everyone has differences and that difference is just part of the human experience. For younger kids, it’s about concrete thinking, humanising other people around them with a balance of curiosity and respectfulness.

As kids get older, they can develop an understanding of what this looks like in practice. Parents can engage their older children in the social justice side of disability, such as learning about the history of the Disabilities Act, the disability rights movement and current activism in that space.

The most important thing to remember is that non-disabled people can be the best possible allies of the disability rights movement by engaging in open and honest conversation. The sooner we do that with our children, the more easily we will start to create a ripple effect of inclusivity and acceptance.